Farmers Markets and the Farm Bill: What’s Happening Now

By: Jen O'Brien       Posted On: July 28, 2013

by Jen O’Brien

As the saga of the Farm Bill stretches on, it has grown increasingly complicated. Here’s an update of what’s happened in the past two months regarding the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). Though these programs represent a very small piece of the bill’s budget, they provide assistance to markets and local producers seeking to grow their businesses and bring healthy fresh food directly to their communities. Where do they stand now?

In June, the Senate passed their version of the 2013 Farm Bill, which included both programs. The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP)—the new version of the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) was included in the Senate’s farm bill with $100 million in mandatory over five years (2014-2018). This expanded version of the program has the goal of:

“Increasing domestic consumption of and access to locally and regionally produced agricultural products by developing, improving, expanding, and providing outreach, training, and technical assistance to, or assisting in the development, improvement, and expansion of –
(A) domestic farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities; and
(B) local and regional food enterprises that are not direct producer-to-consumer markets but process, distribute, aggregate, store, and market locally or regionally produced food products.”

Half of the annual funding would be reserved for direct-marketing activities defined in (A), with half reserved for operations described in (B). Projects in the (B) category will be required to provide a 25% match to the funding. These new specifications mean that the funding level for direct-marketing projects (like farmers markets) will effectively remain the same as in years past at $10 million per year. Additionally, the bill caps funding to administer the program at 10% of appropriated funding, which is slightly more than USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has been allocated to spend on FMPP administration in the past. This technical stipulation could influence the degree to which AMS could staff the program and provide technical assistance for grantees and applicants.

The House has taken a drastically different path to a farm bill – one unprecedented in farm bill history. After failing to pass a complete bill on June 20th, the House removed the nutrition title from the farm bill, and passed the “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act,” as a stand-alone bill with a vote of 216 to 208. No nutrition title means that the huge Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) is missing, along with the much smaller, but highly effective Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

The partial farm bill currently passed by the House includes the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program with the same language as the Senate’s version in regard to the purpose and goals of the program. The major differences are the inclusion of $30 million in annual funding, with $10 million in discretionary funding. If only the mandatory amount was appropriated for FMLFPP, this would represent $15 million in funding for farmers markets ($5 million more than in 2012), since 50% of the funds are required to be spent on aggregation and distribution local food enterprises. However, the House bill would cap administrative spending at 3% (less than half allocated in the past), which would limit AMS’ program staff time to devote to running the program.

Historically, the farm bill has been remained relevant to both urban and rural communities because of the inclusion of nutrition as well as agricultural programs. The comprehensive nature of the bill has ensured that both arms of Congress, and both political parties were invested in its renewal every five years. Breaking the nutrition programs away from the agricultural portions divides support for the bills by party lines, creating a difficult landscape for pushing the bill through in the future.

The decision to split the farm bill split was fueled by partisan disagreement regarding cuts to SNAP. Republicans in the House were largely in support of $20 billion decrease in SNAP funding, and increased requirements for SNAP recipients. House democrats do not support the cuts, which ultimately prevented the House from passing a full farm bill in June. When no headway had been made in reaching a compromise, the House opted to split off the agricultural portion of the pill, so it could move into conference with the Senate’s bill. Typically, the House and Senate would each submit their respective bills before moving them into conference committee, where differences between the bills would be resolved. If Congress was to begin conferencing the bills now, it’s possible that the missing pieces of the House bill would be filled in with the Senate’s nutrition specifications. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas is still awaiting direction on whether to begin conferencing now, or wait until the House can pass it’s own nutrition title.

While recent developments in the House have complicated the process, the deadline to pass a new farm bill remains constant. USDA is currently functioning under an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, which expires on September 30th—an extension which included no provisions for FMPP, SFMNP, or the majority of programs that support beginning farmers and conservation efforts. With only eight legislative days left until Congress’s August recess, the chances of the House and Senate moving into conference on the bill is slim. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reported last week that, “It appears almost inevitable that at least a short-term continuing resolution will be needed before October 1 to keep USDA and the rest of the government functioning.” Unless a deal is made quickly, further farm bill extensions will be enacted, with the hope that comprehensive agricultural appropriation and farm bills will pass in conjunction with broader budget deals in the fall.